fb-pixel Skip to main content

Juliette Kayyem’s new security challenge: Transporting kids

The executive team at Zemcar includes (left to right) Bilal Khan, founder; Juliette Kayyem, CEO; Donna Levin, a top adviser; and Shahid Azim, president.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

When Juliette Kayyem met Zemcar founder Bilal Khan last year, she asked him: “Where have you been all my life?”

The homeland security expert and former gubernatorial candidate is a working mother of three, and she was all too familiar with the stress of coordinating transportation for after-school activities.

Khan, a former Verizon executive, started Zemcar to help parents whose kids are too old for a nanny but too young to drive. With the ease of a smartphone app, parents can schedule rides with a driver, complete with a dashboard camera that sends a live video feed to mom and dad.


Khan sought out Kayyem as an adviser, but as the Woburn startup shifted into high gear this fall, he had other plans: that Kayyem would replace him as CEO.

Kayyem formally joins the company this week, with serial entrepreneur Shahid Azim as chief operating officer. The company has also appointed four new advisers, including Care.com cofounder Donna Levin and former Google executive Laura DeBonis.

Khan, who remains involved as Zemcar’s chairman, said he always envisioned a woman at the helm, someone who understood firsthand the logistical nightmare of getting kids to and from soccer and baseball practices.

He resisted hiring a CEO with a transportation background, though that might seem like Zemcar’s core business.

“Even though it’s a transportation problem we are solving and a logistical problem we are solving, in reality it’s not. It’s a safety problem we are solving,” he said. “Juliette was the perfect fit.”

Kayyem — better known these days for her recent memoir, “Security Mom” — served as a homeland security official in the Obama administration and as homeland security adviser to Governor Deval Patrick. After an unsuccessful run for governor in 2014, the Harvard Law grad and former Globe columnist started her own consulting firm and appears as an analyst on CNN.


“My lane is safety and security. That is our connective tissue,” Kayyem said of Zemcar. “We can’t get that wrong.”

Safety is Zemcar’s competitive advantage against ride-hailing market leaders Uber and Lyft. The niche player boasts additional background checks beyond what the state requires, including face-to-face interviews for prospective drivers and a minimum driving history of five years.

While Uber and Lyft prohibit children under age 18 from riding alone, Zemcar promotes itself as being the only ride service that carries insurance to cover unaccompanied minors.

“The state standard is our floor, not our ceiling,” Kayyem saud.

If this is starting to sound like “Uber for kids,” Khan and Kayyem prefer to think of Zemcar as being the “Care.com of transportation.” Just as Waltham-based Care.com provides an online marketplace for people to find caregivers, Zemcar helps customers figure out transportation options for those who need a little more hand-holding.

“I was excited that Bilal was solving a pain point for parents,” said Levin, one of Care.com’s cofounders, explaining why she decided to become one of the company’s advisers.

Unlike conventional ride-hailing services, Zemcar allows customers to choose their drivers and opt for door-to-door service to make sure kids get to where they are going. The company ferries children as young as 8 years old in Greater Boston.

All this peace of mind comes at a price, and Zemcar is banking on parents being willing to pay a premium for it. The median price of a ride is about $31.


Zemcar is among a new crop of app-based, family-centric ride services that are popping up, including HopSkipDrive and Zum in California and Sheprd in Boston.

Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice of urban technologies and director of the MIT Senseable City Lab, said Zemcar’s focus on safety is similar to how ratings have been used to build brands online.

“This is an approach that in the last years has become increasingly relevant — shared by the likes of AirBnB, Lyft, TripAdvisor, and many others. The more accountable the business is, the higher its possibility to succeed becomes,” Ratti wrote in an e-mail. “I would say this applies even more in the field of ride hailing for kids, in which one single unfortunate episode would have immediate consequences on the reputation of the company.”

So far, angel investors have fueled Zemcar’s growth, but Kayyem expects to seek venture funding next year. The company has 10 employees, with plans to double that by year’s end. (As at Uber and Lyft, the drivers use their own cars and are independent contractors.)

Kayyem is new to the tech startup world, but the Democrat figured it was a good time to try something different.

“There was a Trump moment,” she acknowledged. “I didn’t want to be on defense for the next four years. I wanted to do something meaningful, and I wanted to be part of something.”

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.